500 years of Italian Painting from Glasgow Museums at Compton Verney


If visiting Compton Verney was our first discovery of the day, our second and even greater discovery was the exhibition they are currently showing, Bellini, Botticelli, Titian – 500 Years of Italian Art.

The exhibition is drawn from the collections in the Glasgow Museums which have what is clearly the finest public art collection in the UK, outside of the national museums. That fact alone is a useful reminder that in the nineteenth century Glasgow was by some distance the second city of the UK and the fourth richest city in Europe. And the merchants and businessmen who drove that wealth had an important tradition of public benefaction, believing as the largest benefactor, Archibald McLennan put it in his will “the study of what is called the Fine Arts is eminently conducive to the elevation and refinement of all classes”.

There are many wonderful paintings in this exhibition. But the marketing focus on the ‘big names’ of Bellini, Botticelli and Titian is somewhat misleading. In a large show there is one picture by each and in the case of Titian it is a work from very early in his life which is interesting rather than awe-inspiring. The Bellini and Botticelli pictures are both worth the visit on their own, but they were not the pictures which most appealed to me on this visit.

My own personal favourites from the exhibition were pictures by Bartolomeo Veneto, Luca Signorelli and Salvator Rosa, all illustrated in the gallery above.

The Bartolomeo Veneto painting is called St Catherine Crowned but seems to a long way from a religious study of a suffering saint. It is a delightful portrait of idealised beauty, certainly for contemplation but not, I would think, for contemplation of the soul. It is beautifully done and resonates as effectively today as it must have done on the day it was finished.

The painting by Luca Signorelli, Lamentation over the Dead Christ is a small section of a large alter piece. Signorelli apparently learnt his trade working with Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel and you can see in this tiny picture how he has absorbed Michelangelo’s muscular and sculptural figuring, and his sense of energy and movement. Mary Magdalene positively runs across the picture to reach the dead Christ. It is a wonderful little picture.

Finally, there are a pair of enormous Salvator Rosa landscapes: religious themes but dominated by a wild and rugged landscape which overwhelms the human forms. Even the figure of Christ in one picture is reduced to a tiny distant figure, dominated by the landscape around him.

These are just three pictures which particularly appealed to me. There is a great deal more. I would recommend anyone who has the chance to see this exhibition before it moves on to a series of venues in the US.

Congratulations to Glasgow for continuing to value and promote their wonderful collection. You are an example to every civic gallery in the UK.